Helicopter industry legend Elling Halvorson was honored last weekend during the Museum of Flight’s 34th Annual Pathfinder Awards. Every year the Seattle-based museum honors Northwest visionaries that have made significant contributions to the development of the aerospace industry. Halvorson received the prestigious Pathfinder Award alongside former Boeing CEO Alan Mulally and the late NASA astronaut Michael P. Anderson.
Halvorson, a resident of Kirkland, Wash., was recognized for his significant contributions to helicopter aviation, tourism and safety. Founder of Grand Canyon Helicopters, a founding member of the Tour Operators Program of Safety (TOPS) – celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2016, a catalyst in the development of quiet helicopter technology, and a former chairman of the Helicopter Association International, Halvorson has significantly shaped today’s helicopter industry.
Elling Halvorson: Entrepreneur
A legendary entrepreneur, Halvorson graduated from Willamette University with a degree in economics and “what you might call a minor in civil engineering,” as he puts it.
He immediately went to work for the family construction business. He met challenges head on, including the Echo Summit Microwave Project, for which he purchased his first helicopter, a Bell 47-G3B1, to carry workers and light construction materials through treacherous mountain terrain.
Specializing in remote area projects with challenging logistics, Halvorson took pride in mitigating risks through creativity and innovation. Nothing illustrates this more than his award of the Trans-Canyon Pipeline contract in the Grand Canyon in the 1960’s. Halvorson utilized a fleet of helicopters including the Sikorsky S-61 and S-55, and the Bell Huey 204B for heavy lifting. Lighter loads were moved with Bell-47s and Hiller SL-4s. The project took three years and endured many challenges, including a devastating 1,500-year flood that destroyed many miles of pipeline. It remains the largest helicopter-construction project completed in the United States.
The project also gave birth to another of Halvorson’s legacies. As Halvorson and his team flew colleagues and clients to work sites within the canyon, the majestic scenery was so captivating that workers began requesting chartered helicopter flights during off hours. Not one to miss an opportunity, in 1965 Halvorson created the world’s first helicopter sightseeing company – Grand Canyon Helicopters. Today, the company is known as Papillon Group with Grand Canyon Helicopters, a long-time TOPS member, operating as one of its brands. This year, Papillon celebrated its 50th anniversary making it the world’s largest and longest running helicopter tour company.
Halvorson has also been instrumental in the development of quiet technology. As the concern for noise over the Grand Canyon increased in the 1980s, Halvorson helped to create a quieter version of the S-55.
In 1993, he formed Whisper Jet Inc. and partnered with Vertical Aviation Technology. They transformed a noisy 1950s design into a modern machine we know today.
Halvorson has been honored with many awards over the years, notably the Lawrence D Bell Memorial Award, and the esteemed Vertical Flight Hall of Fame Award. He is a philanthropic leader of the community, including administering the Halvorson Charities Fund. Halvorson stands as a “Pathfinder,” inspiring future generations with his entrepreneurial contributions to the helicopter industry. His plaque and story will remain on display in the museum indefinitely.
TOPS is a non-profit safety organization dedicated to increasing the safety of helicopter tour operations in the United States. Founded in 1996, and celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2016, the organization worked with the FAA, NTSB and the Helicopter Association International (HAI) to identify areas within a tour operator’s management, flight operations, maintenance, ground personnel and equipment that could be enhanced beyond FAA Part 135 regulations. From there, it designed its comprehensive program of safety. Every TOPS regular member must meet the program’s requirements and pass an annual independent initial audit to confirm it meets or exceeds the program. TOPS operators consistently operate at a considerably lower accident and incident rate than the overall helicopter industry.
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